Okay, okay; guilty as charged: I admit that I’m an unrepentant fan of college football, but only when my alma mater plays. My team’s the Big Red; the Cornhuskers; the University of Nebraska team, in case you need it spelled out further. I never watch professional football; it seems pretty troglodytic as well as corrupt to me, in fact. But oh; when those scarlet-and-cream Cornshuckers take the field, my heart soars, and I hear the school song blaring, and the crowds roaring, and the stadium full of red-clad fans totally pumped, and just primed to do the wave! We Nebraskans (and once-Nebraskans) love our team inordinately, and even occasionally go so far as to elect former coaches to the US Congress. Visitors cannot be faulted for not knowing whether Tom Osborne is a major or minor deity to Nebraskans.
Oh, the thrill of Homecoming, and the giant red mum corsages the co-eds pinned onto their woolen coats, as their high heels clicked along the sidewalks, the longed-for cooler brisk fall air redolent with the spicy scent of the corn-harvesting wafting about the campus. I can so easily imagine myself back there again in the easy camaraderie of the masses of fans heading toward the stadium, thousands upon thousands of Nebraskans with a single goal, streaming toward the stadium. For us, this wasn’t just college football, it was the raison d’être of an entire state! ‘There is no place like Nebraska…where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest’… I’d walk within the throng, holding hands with my four-foot eleven-inch girlfriend as we headed toward sun-drenched stadium nirvana.
What could be more innocently thrilling, more invigorating, than a home game with our historical rivals, Oklahoma? For decades we played the Sooners, OU’s team. Even those of us who never otherwise bet on anything would put some wager on the home team. It was a matter of pride and confidence in our boys. All these years later, I still get jazzed when we play Oklahoma. I’ll often call my father in Lincoln, and my son wherever he is at the time, prior to kickoff, and again during half-time to either commiserate or celebrate…maybe even when the game’s over; sometimes they’ll call me. It’s great.
Sometimes I’ll even remember to put on my Grandfather’s ugly red Cornhusker tie while I watch, if my wife remembers to dig it up for me. She loathes football, and usually reads in the bedroom room during the game, so she brings me the tie in the way of some pointed ribbing. She prides herself on not even knowing the rules of the game, and breaks up when the announcers talk about tight ends, of which position she was first made aware by the John Lithgow character in The Hotel New Hampshire. When she can tell that I’m yelling bad things at the television, she’ll crack the door, and pretend to need assurance that I won’t beat her if Nebraska loses. She thinks she’s pretty flipping funny.
My mom had died six months ago. She’d had Alzheimer’s, and had finally needed to go and live in a nursing home. She was ninety, and in relatively good health otherwise, and might have lived a lot longer, but knowing less and less about the world around her. Once an out-of-control infection almost killed her, but she rebounded from that, even though she was approaching late-stage dementia. I prayed for her to die; life was getting increasing less fun for her. One night, she sat up in bed, spoke a few words, and died. She did it right, bless her heart; bye, mom; journey well.
My dad had spent the last year adjusting to her eventual departure from his world in that difficult and terrible process that some have called the long goodbye. He wants to stay in their house, and pays no attention to entreaties from my sister to move to an apartment or retirement home near her; damn, he’s a stubborn cuss. A few months ago my sister brought him to Colorado, and she and I shuttled him from one end of the state to the other so he could visit me and my wife and his other relatives around the state. He’s become something of a different person through all this; he even decided he liked my wife after decades of not, sometime during his stay. Weird. Now he can’t say enough nice things about her, and even laughs at her jokes; the first sign of a sense of humor I can recall… He doesn’t even throw a fit when she calls him Old Man, though nobody else can get away with it. She finally asked him, “If ya ain’t old when you’re ninety-two, when the hell are you?” Maybe he finally thought, “Oh. Right.” But in any event, he laughed; another remarkable event.
When my sister finally delivered him back home to Nebraska, we all thought he’d been cured of his sorties out into the world. Boy, were we wrong. My brother and his wife invited him to California for a visit to some millionaire’s house they were house-sitting. Complex travel plans were arranged, and off he went again, after a mere few weeks at home. He gallivanted around for a couple weeks on the coast, after which my sister and my dad’s infernal poodle picked him up at the airport in Denver. He was exhausted, and eager to get home. They spent the night in a small city not far from Denver so he could see his sister one more (maybe last) time, and then head back to Lincoln the next morning.
It was Game Day. And by that I mean the day the Cornhuskers played Oklahoma. I’d agreed to keep them abreast of the game by phone until they could get far enough east to pick up a radio station carrying the game. We spoke by cell multiple times; it was a close game, and just great. By half-time, Nebraska was a mere three points ahead. But our last call brought news of a real, as they say, game-changer.
My sister had just gotten a call from our aunt, our mother’s sister: her husband, also in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, plus other complications, had experienced some crisis, and his life was ebbing fast. He was in a coma, with no hope of waking without massive brain damage. She asked them to come to them in western Nebraska, as she needed their help.
The ‘help’ was helping her decide whether or not to pull the plug on my uncle’s life. Soon; as in: immediately. I pictured where they were on that long, straight highway heading east on the Great Plains and the yearned-for home for dad; now a detour north was necessary. I cringed at this new burden that had just been laid on my dad’s fragile and aged shoulders. My God.
Whoa; we kicked it around for a bit. My dad was voting to say “no” to the plug-pulling, even though he didn’t seem to have enough information to make an informed decision, but was additionally quite adept at meting out guilt and shame, which Auntie did not need. I thought about it all for a bit, then talked it over with my wife. We came up with some ideas he might want to consider, mainly about the advisability of being more of a sounding board for Auntie, asking questions and allowing her to decide. We figured she should have all the votes, really; he’d been her husband for sixty years, after all. His role should just be a supportive one.
The game resumed, and was getting really competitive. Damn; I bit the bullet and phoned, knowing they were getting closer and closer to Gering and Auntie. I spoke to my sister briefly about my thoughts, thinking that she might remember them better than my dad would later on, and might be able to use a few hints. She then handed her cell to my dad; I tried to keep my foot from tapping with impatience. They weren’t far from the turnoff to the hospital; I launched into my spiel, acknowledging to him that he was walking into a really fraught situation, and letting him know I’d be with him in spirit, offering my free advice. I didn’t get too far before he interrupted me.
“Mmm-hmmm…thanks, son; what’s the score now? How are we doing?” I told him that Nebraska had just scored, and let him know the score…and then eventually said goodbye…to a dead phone; the old man had…fucking hung up.
Gradually I became aware that my head was shaking slightly back and forth in utter amazement, having forgotten that a lot of Big Red fans certain priorities hard-wired into their goddam DNA. In a tick or two, I heard my wife, closeted in our bedroom, but obviously within earshot, burst into peals of laughter that turned into choking and snorting guffaws which finally leveled off into occasional chortles and chuckles as she realized exactly what had happened. Nebraskans just fucking kill her. Small wonder.
(cross-posted at Cafe-Babylon.net)